Gadgets: built to not last

Who's to blame for the 'planned obsolescence' of consumer electronics?

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The pentalobular screwdriver needed to turn the pentalobular screw was unavailable for sale anywhere until recently. Now, a company called iFixIt sells what it calls an "iPhone 4 Liberation Kit" that contains the special screwdriver, replacement Phillips-head screws and a second screwdriver for the new screws. It costs $9.95.

Apple may use more than than screws to foster quicker product turnover. For example, the price for a replacement battery for Apple's iPod Shuffle is identical to the cost of replacing the entire unit: $49. When a Shuffle's battery dies and its owner brings it to Apple for repair, the company itself may just throw away the old model and replace it with a new unit, says one expert.

Accusations that Apple embraces planned obsolescence aren't uncommon. For example, the iPhone's battery can't be replaced by users, as can the batteries of some competitors' phones. And Apple music players are clearly designed to be replaced every year or two with the latest model. And I don't know about you, but I buy new Apple earbuds every couple of months or so. What a racket.

The new TV reality

Even TVs are being transformed from long-lasting devices to throwaway products that consumers are motivated to upgrade every couple of years.

TV sets used to last for years -- even decades. But as manufacturers increasingly tout "smart" TVs, connected TVs and 3D models, the family television is coming to resemble the disposable gadgets we carry in our pockets.

By building in additional features, TV makers are greatly expanding the number of components that can fail or become obsolete.

Many of the TVs announced at CES this month run apps on built-in PCs. But just like the PC on your desk, these will become obsolete in two years when far more powerful TVs will be able to run incredible new applications. Then what?

And just like PC vendors, it's just a matter of time before TV makers start nagging users to download the latest driver, codec or version in order to view a video. And in the not-too-distant future, when even cell phones have 4GB of RAM, the TVs that shipped this year with only 1GB may not be able to handle the latest content.

In a nutshell, the newest TVs are now, for the first time, subject to the cold realities of Moore's Law, and they have become several orders of magnitude more complex (and many times more likely to fail).

So who's to blame?

The easiest party to blame for the ever-decreasing longevity of consumer electronics is the industry, or the companies that make the devices.

Others may be tempted to blame the government for lax regulations about how products are designed.

But ultimately I blame two people: You and me.

The tech press is guilty as sin at hyping the latest and greatest gadgets, oohing and aahing the latest features and creating an atmosphere of consequence-free gadget lust. Anyone who pays close attention to analysts like me is likely to be persuaded to buy a new phone every year, a new laptop every two years, and every tablet, TV, and car dashboard- or wristwatch-based electronic toy that comes along.

When reviewing consumer electronics products, we overemphasize the compelling features and almost ignore life span, user upgradability, ease (or difficulty) of battery replacement and fixability.

But the bottom line is this: If we don't buy it, they won't make it.

The ugly truth is that different gadgets have different life spans. Some last a long time, and others don't. If we tend to buy, as we do, the short-lived products, we reward the abusers and drive the more responsible vendors out of business. So we have only ourselves to blame for planned obsolescence.

It's time to say, enough! Fellow gadget journalists, let's put far greater emphasis on durable, long-life design, and let's slam manufacturers who engage in planned -- or unplanned -- obsolescence.

And fellow consumers, let's stop buying devices designed to fail quickly, and let's insist that vendors make devices that can be repaired and upgraded.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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